The story of Aspen’s Smuggler Mountain
ASPEN – Smuggler – a great name, an unforgettable mountain face, a piece of living history.
To those who traverse this mountain on the edge of Aspen regularly, it is a familiar friend, even an influential one. Parts of Smuggler have been roaded, pipelined, tunneled, forested, deforested and forested again. It’s been skied, sniffed by dogs, walked, sledded, bumpily driven, pumped of water, fought over in legal tugs-of-war, briefly considered a Superfund site, and peppered with mine adits, shafts, and dumps. Another part collapsed, leaving an impressive scar to this day.
Now, after spreading at a full-tilt boogie through large chunks of the West, the mountain pine beetle has arrived in Smuggler’s pine forest. On Monday, June 21, a helicopter removed 52 felled trees from Smuggler as part of an ongoing effort to slow the beetle’s advance in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.
Although, or perhaps because, I have moved away from the valley, visions of Ajax, Sopris, Independence, Red Mountain, Red Butte, and Smuggler linger in my mind – especially that Smuggler face. I worked at the Smuggler Racquet Club as a kid, and at day’s end, for fun, would aim the loaded ball machine toward the road, mine structures and dumps, flinging tennis balls toward the symbol of the mining riches that made Aspen. The balls didn’t fly beyond the far court, but I like to think of the effort as a modest nod to the intense spirit and strain that brought Smuggler’s mineral self to life.
Since we humans have relatively short and subjective memories, it’s difficult to conceive a Smuggler outside the scope of our cultural history. However, the mountain exists in a world anchored by millennia of geological and ecological processes, and centuries of Native American presence. Smuggler Mountain is as rich in events and memories as it was in silver ore production; it would be even richer if only we had the ability to mine its environmental history over a period greater than the roughly 130-year span exposed to us. Historic photos can at least help us conjure images of a different Smuggler over the short timespan since Aspen was founded.
As a fascinating way to reconcile my home from afar, I’ve been looking at all kinds of old photos. One from 1882 portrays a soft Smuggler face along with a growing Aspen city, including the Garrison House prominently in the foreground. The mountain is free of the road cut and Johnson mine dump in the gulley, and has plenty of aspen trees across its top ridges. Advance to 1900 and only a few whiskers of trees remain, a railroad trestle crosses the Roaring Fork River, and an industrial-scale mining operation fills in the base of the mountain.
These photos provide an instructional record of forest succession, allowing us to watch the change in the forest stands, both at the top and on the flanks of Smuggler Mountain. We see a disturbed forest, as shown in the mining period photos, and a transition to a coniferous forest already noticeable in the 1953 photo of a woman and dog looking out on Aspen.
Today’s images present a vegetative scene that is practically the opposite of the early Aspen settlement days. A human-initiated urban forest dominates the modern foreground where there once was a sagebrush steppe, and upper Smuggler has been filled in with a dense, dark-green conifer forest.
Implicated in all of the photos is mining – either directly or after-the-fact. The Smuggler Mine was one of Aspen’s first mining claims, staked during the initial push in 1879 when prospectors sought promising rock outcrops. It became Aspen’s most productive and longest-operating mine.
On a recent tour, I followed mine caretaker Jay Parker and historian Larry Fredrick 1,250 feet into the mountain. We walked through a damp tunnel, at times ducking below its arched roof, which was hand-dug (with the aid of blasting powder) through the limestone. In the dim light, my ears compensated for my eyes and I imagined miners’ voices echoing from the various stopes – the caverns that once contained the rich ore bodies. Once complete, the Smuggler Mine went down 18 levels, with up to 100 feet between each level. At one point on the tour, we stood several hundred feet directly under the Smuggler Mountain Road and its recreationists. Carrying the torch first lit by Stefan Albouy, a passionate miner with a dream to revive Smuggler, the New Smuggler Mining Company supports mine maintenance and offers tours.
The dumps still evident today came from inside Smuggler Mountain, along with the world’s largest silver nugget, which had to be cut into three parts in order to be hauled up the shaft (Bancroft, 1975). The large upper dump, so noticeable in photos, marks the JC Johnson Mine. Through all of the mining activity, waste accumulated at the bottom of Smuggler, and in the 1980s a researcher discovered soils in a Smuggler neighborhood that contained heavy metals, raising enough concern for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to classify the base of Smuggler as a Superfund site. After citizen activists convinced the EPA that the contamination was insignificant to human health and didn’t warrant a major reclamation effort, the site was de-listed.
Among the many lacerations and mounds observable in photos of Smuggler’s face is a plunging line where a pipe once carried water straight down from a Hunter Creek diversion to the Aspen hydroplant (at today’s Art Museum). In 1908, the flume that carried the water spilled, according to Paul Andersen’s “Power in the Mountains: The History of the Aspen Municipal Electric Utility,” causing the collapse zone visible today just to the south of the Hunter Creek drainage.
In addition to determining Aspen’s initial development, mining had a dramatic influence on area forests. It required vast amounts of wood for the bracing of tunnels, cribbing of stopes, and construction of shafts and other mine buildings, not to mention the eventual development of two railroads, ore processing facilities and a housing boom that would render modern Aspen and its government planners speechless. As the early photos show, settlers harvested trees from the easier-to-access slopes all around town, including Smuggler.
According to Sally Barlow-Perez in “A History of Aspen,” lumber production become Aspen’s second largest industry – large enough for two sawmills in town, with others at Ashcroft and Hunter Creek. The underground operations of Smuggler Mine alone used 100,000 board feet of timber per month between 1887 and 1893, according to Malcolm J. Rohrbough in “Aspen: The History of a Silver Mining Town, 1879-1893.” (For perspective, the construction of a small, 1,000 square-foot ranch house requires about 3,000 board feet.)
Historic accounts note wildfires, both during the Hayden expedition of the earlier 1870s and in 1879. In Frank L. Wentworth’s “Aspen on the Roaring Fork,” Warner Root, one of Aspen’s original prospectors, recalls this story: “It is said that immediately after the Smuggler was discovered in July 1879, that a half interest was sold for a mule and fifty dollars and that the mule became a dead loss during the heavy forest fire of that summer and fall.”
Accounts also mention the logging of abundant “yellow pine” – another name for ponderosa pine – from surrounding hillsides. Smuggler’s dominant vegetation types today include aspen, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, mountain shrubland and riparian shrubland. A few younger ponderosas stand along the road today, and several within the Roaring Fork river corridor have reached the 250-year mark. In terms of aspen, both persistent and successional aspen forests occur on the mountain. Indeed, aspen trees love a disturbance and are likely successors to our modern-day beetle-killed pine forest.
Stephen Ellsperman, Aspen director of parks and open space, marvels at the information we can glean from the photo comparisons. “For anyone struggling to understand the mechanics of forest ecology, they only need observe the photo series to see that change is inevitable and welcome in the Smuggler Mountain forest,” he says. “As the conifers, dominated by lodgepole pine, increase in their total stand coverage, one can witness the need for a disturbance to keep a healthy balance of species diversity, species distribution, age class diversity and forested cover.”
We might mine the mountain’s silver ore or remove its dead trees by helicopter, but the pine beetle outbreak represents a connection to the larger landscape and reminds us that, ultimately, we aren’t in control. In immediate terms, the large-scale aftermath of the beetle will be devastating. As a process, the pine beetle drives major ecological change that ripples through everything from the insect communities that follow a beetle epidemic, to the birds that nest in snags and eat the beetles and secondary insects, to transition into the next forest community.
A few years ago, I had pinon pines around my Basalt residence sprayed for the ipps beetle. Even that small-scale effort seemed futile within the grand scheme of things, though the home front represents a more viable candidate for tree protection than the forest at large. One thing is for certain – it is a challenging time for forest managers, who must juggle pressures to manage forests during a perceived crisis with an overall philosophy embracing the dynamics of forest succession.
In March, I hiked up Smuggler Mountain Road and then along the Hunter Creek Cutoff Trail. It was a bright afternoon, 48 degrees and clear. I ascended into ever-expanding views and the sound of the city’s hum – a passing jet, an idling diesel truck, a distant barking dog, crows and the “fee bee” song of the black-capped chickadee. It was a peaceful Aspen afternoon, especially compared to the noise of the mining era.
The Hunter Creek Cutoff Trail was still, except for the staccato pounding of a pair of hairy woodpeckers, undoubtedly seeking pine beetles. The verbenone packets hanging from the lower trunks of lodgepoles caught my interest. A synthetic treatment, verbenone mimics a pheromone that tells beetles a tree is already “occupied.” It will be interesting to see how today’s attempts to protect the forest influence a landscape primed for its next ecological step.
My three-hour experience unwrapped a gift of fresh air, exercise, unbelievable views, and space to observe nature and ponder life – not something to take for granted. During the past 30 years, a series of complicated acquisitions, donations and conservation easements has resulted in today’s 300-acre Smuggler Mountain Open Space, managed by the City of Aspen Parks and Recreation Department and Pitkin County Open Space and Trails. Collectively it represents the most expensive open space acquisition by local government in the valley. By forestalling development, it provides a unique opportunity for present and future residents to experience Smuggler’s ecological changes over large swaths of time.
As the devaluation of silver loomed large in mining communities at the end of the 1800s, so the pine beetle outbreak occurring across the western U.S. and Canada looms large in the lifetimes of today’s residents. As more time passes, we will want to get used to a forest in flux. One important thing to do is to witness the changes in the area’s forest composition, document them, and keep telling Aspen’s history, in order to build a longer, larger perspective for subsequent generations. Something to fear more than the loss of the today’s lodgepole forest on Smuggler is the loss of the human memory of the place.
Smuggler provides the backdrop for a story-rich image of James H. Adams on the Castle Creek Bridge, circa 1910, next to a sign that says: “Notice: $25.00 Fine for Riding or Driving on This Bridge Faster Than a Walk.” How I would love to walk down the middle of today’s traffic-choked bridge! But the photos can help the mind and heart loosen their grasp on a fixed image of Aspen and its surroundings.
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